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Passage of tax measures surprises many

When the votes were counted Tuesday night, the results stunned.

Not only had Josephine County voters approved tax measures supporting libraries, animal protection and firefighters, but they finally approved — barely — a public safety levy.

"I think I'm still in a state of disbelief," County Commissioner Lily Morgan said Wednesday during a meeting at Basker Auditorium.

Morgan related how she got a call election night from a dispatcher.

"The dispatcher was crying," Morgan said. "She said, 'Is it true?' "

Since the early 1990s, the county has struggled with funding questions due to changes in federal timber harvest policy and federal revenue-sharing programs. Income from the harvest of federal forests once filled county coffers, but no more.

Federally funded safety net programs brought in as much as $15 million a year, but those programs are gone, replaced by federal timber harvest revenue this year that means just $2 million for the county.

Over the years, funding cuts led to county layoffs, with the result that county employment was cut in half: Nearly 700 positions in the past fell to fewer than 350 now.

Eight county tax proposals to make up the shortfall were defeated in the last 13 years, including five straight since 2012, the year budget cuts decimated the Sheriff's Office and other public safety functions.

Until Tuesday, when 52 percent of voters agreed to pay more. What was different this time?

"Maybe the school of hard knocks," Sheriff Dave Daniel said during a news conference Wednesday. "Maybe people don't want to live in a county that's lawless."

Daniel had a happy problem. He gets to keep 17 employees who were slated to be laid off, and instead he will be hiring 22 more.

"I'm a little overwhelmed," he said.

Earlier that morning, Daniel had met with his patrol deputies and then corrections officers.

"There's been tears shed," he said. "I told them this is just the beginning. Our work starts now. We've got to uphold the wishes of our voters. It's a mandate. We want to, and we have to."

Daniel has to order inmate clothing and mattresses and outfit patrol cars and see to the arduous process of hiring. He wants to immediately increase the inmate count at the jail to 150.

He still won't have any detectives, but 80 employees is a lot closer to the 98 employed when the budget ax fell five years ago.

The prospect of again dropping to about 40 Sheriff's Office employees, as occurred in 2012 before rising to today's 58 staffers, might have caught the attention of voters this time. Maybe it was a proposed tax rate of 93 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, down from the last defeated proposal, in November, which carried a rate of $1.42.

Maybe it was the threat of a one-third reduction in prosecutions, or the explosion in heroin use, or all the marijuana farming.

This election, commissioners issued a fact sheet and acted in concert with the sheriff. They removed their office from receiving proceeds from the measure, for administrative costs, and thus eliminated criticism they would gain from passage.

Also, Daniel and County Commissioner Dan DeYoung took to the road for town halls around the county, including several in the critical — and remote — Illinois Valley.

Cave Junction Mayor Daniel Dalegowski believes the road show was important, coupled with widespread community concern.

"I'm really, really happy it happened," Dalegowski said Wednesday. "And I think probably the others on the council are, too.

"There was a really strong effort by some people to do some education," he continued. "Some people made more of an effort to reach out. Maybe more people understood if this doesn't pass these cuts are going to go through."

Town halls in the valley were organized by the Illinois Valley Community Development Organization.

"They had the sheriff there," the mayor said. "It was a personal experience. They got to hear some commitments. That probably built some confidence."

The alternative would have meant the canceling of the city's contract for a deputy, because no backup would have been available.

"We were going to contract with private security," Dalegowski said. "And most likely start our own police force. We just don't have the budget to do that effectively."

Dalegowski was asked about the current situation, given that sheriff's patrols are already reduced to daytime patrols, although Daniel has expectations to now station a resident deputy there, as well as in the Merlin area and Murphy/Williams area.

"The level of security is pretty bad," he said. "It's not ideal. When they (deputies) go home in the evening, we definitely have property crimes, at night. Things have fallen between the cracks."

Dalegowski credited volunteers with CJ Patrol with keeping a nighttime watch on the town.

"They simply provide a presence," he said. "That makes a huge difference. They're really encouraging people to do neighborhood watches. It's pretty amazing just what volunteers are doing, but it's just too much to ask these people to stay up all night."

Dalegowski also credited Illinois Valley Fire Chief Dennis Hoke with pushing awareness. At a downtown Cave Junction shooting a couple weeks ago, local medics and first responders had to stand by and await the arrival of Oregon State Police troopers from Grants Pass.

Some people are comfortable arming and defending themselves, but some are defenseless, Dalegowski said.

"I just think it's an obligation of society," he said. "I'm amazed every time I hear a siren or see flashing lights. That's society coming to help you. It's an amazing thing, we come together and do."

— Reach reporter Shaun Hall at 541-474-3722 or shall@thedailycourier.com.